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Page last updated at 19:52 GMT, Wednesday, 2 September 2009 20:52 UK

Golf battles to make recession cut

By John Haughey
BBC Northern Ireland

The third green at Galgorm Castle in Ballymena
Bad weather has proved a problem for many clubs including Galgorm Castle

The past summer saw the high-profile opening of the Lough Erne Resort with the tantalising suggestion that a European Tour event could be in the offing for the Fermanagh venue.

However, for the bulk of local golf clubs, recession-plagued 2009 is proving a most challenging of years.

With cash seemingly at a premium in even the affluent of households, justifying, in some cases, four-figure annual memberships to the other half is becoming an increasingly difficult task.

Golf club bank balances, therefore, took a considerable hit at the start of 2009 and since then, many clubs have been fighting a rearguard action.

Galgorm Castle general manager Gary Henry insists that the picture is not all doom and gloom although like all golf club managers, the current spell of dreadful weather is a worry ahead of what will prove a crucial autumn period.

"In general terms, we are having a good year so far but we are only eight months in," says the Galgorm representative.

"The weather can have a bigger effect that the economic downturn."

Gone are the days when people retained membership of a club just to say they are a member

Galgorm Castle general manager Gary Henry

Like virtually all local clubs, Galgorm has had no option but to come up with initiatives in an attempt to attract new members to plug the gaps left by those who have chosen to downsize to pay-as-you-play.

"We have introduced several special promotions throughout the year on green fees and group bookings which has been working well," adds Henry.

"We also introduced a new member initiative for 2009 and we have achieved well above our targets.

"At the beginning of 2009, most clubs, including ourselves, lost members who no longer made use of the course and facilities.

"Gone are the days when people retained membership of a club just to say they are a member but we as a club have recruited more members than we lost which is bucking the trend."

In the 1990s and for most of the noughties, hefty joining fees as well the annual subscription were the order of the day for those wishing to sign up to golf clubs - that's if you were indeed deemed suitable to grace some of the well-heeled institutions.

A few short years later, it's a very different picture with virtually all local clubs crying out for new members and many having opted to jettison, or at least severely reduce, the initial joining fee.

County Down club Donaghadee doesn't have any debts to service but club captain John Devine acknowledges the severe challenges that 2009 has presented.

"We haven't seen a recession like this in the 110-year history of the club," adds Devine.

Belvoir Park
The picturesque fourth hole at Belvoir Park in South Belfast

Worried about the deterioration in its finances the club called a special council meeting in June.

The result was the launch of an advertising campaign and reduced entrance fees to help attract new members.

The Donaghadee club captain even went as far as personally contacting those who had opted not to renew their memberships this year in an attempt to change their minds.

Even some of Northern Ireland's best known clubs have been coming up with initiatives to attempt to pull in badly-needed cash.

Non-members can now play a four-ball on the plush fairways of Belvoir Park in south Belfast for £130 while a two-ball will set back the players only £65 for a course which hosted last year's Irish Close Championship.

But the financial realities are there even for Belvoir - a club that opened a new £3m clubhouse 15 months ago.

Along the north coast, Royal Portrush and Portstewart are getting in on the budget act themselves as they have joined forced with Ballyliffin to stage the inaugural 54-hole Great North Links Challenge from 7-9 October.

"The three clubs got together about five months ago and everybody felt it was a move we should make," says Ballyliffin general manager John Farren.

"It has been warmly received and we're getting enquiries from all over the world for it.

"We're hoping to build this into something similar to the Causeway Coast amateur tournament.

The 13th tee at Ballyliffin's Glashedy links
Ballyliffin will be one of the Great North Links Challenge venues

"It's 150 Euro to play the Glashedy, Dunluce and Strand course at Portstewart which is an example of what we're trying to offer in this part of the world."

After the high-profile hosting of the Senior Irish Open last year, the Ballyliffin general manager admits that "consolidation" has been the watchword in 2009 and "probably for the next two years as well".

But Farren insists that standards "must not be let drop".

"We're not alone here in that we are down in visitor number this year.

"To counteract that, we have reduced green free prices.

"We're putting together attractive packages with local hotels to try and attract the limited number of visitors that are out there.

"We've tried a few initiatives. The Donegal golf clubs one has been very welcomed by golfers in the locality.

You are not going to sustain an ongoing golf business on the back of building houses or apartments

Ballyliffin general manager John Farren

"They will get a half-prize green fee any day of the week providing they are a member of a Donegal or Strabane or Derry or Foyle Golf Clubs.

"That comes on the back of the existing arrangement that we have with North West Coast links group."

The results of all those initiatives appear to have worked positively with Ballyliffin enjoying its most successful ever open week back in July and numbers remained solid in August despite the inclement weather.

"I believe this year will not be as much about doom and gloom as certainly people painted in the early part of this year," adds Farren.

"In January, February, March, people were saying that the golf industry was going to be absolutely devastated this year.

"I don't see that as being the case. OK…there will be casualties but I don't see places such as Ballyliffin being in any danger whatsoever.

"The resort places that are relying on top-rate green fees and selling property to try and balance the books…those days are gone for the moment at any rate.

"Certainly any business hoping to sustain an ongoing golf business is not going to do so on the back of building houses or apartments."



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